A conversation with Mark Russell

Political satirist Mark Russell will perform at the Fredonia Opera House at 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are still available, and the show promises to be great fun for those who enjoy laughing at the absurdity of politics.

Russell warned, ” The ‘F-word’ will be part of the show.” After a slight comedic pause, he clarified the word – “filibuster.”

Known for his stand-up jokes, songs and parodies, he provided a preview of topics: Prince Andrew (Cuomo), Congress’ vacation, Bill and Hillary, and Edward Snowden (the man who leaked National Security Agency documents).

At almost 82, Russell’s wit is still razor-sharp. Explaining that some people think he “might be preaching to them” while others might think “maybe he’s not angry enough,” his method of performing is to “just let it rip.”

He doesn’t employ any writers, but often says, “I have 535 writers. One hundred in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives.” Sometimes his number is 436. In that case he adds the President.

Well-known for his 30-year run of comedy specials on public television recorded for WNED in Buffalo, Russell actually grew up in the Buffalo area.

He attended St. Paul’s elementary school in Kenmore followed by Canisius High School in Buffalo from which he graduated in 1950. After high school, his family moved to Washington, D.C. where his dad ran a gas station in Alexandria, Va.

“I was a terrible student,” he admits. Asked about the influence of the Jesuits who taught him in high school, he thought perhaps they did help him with political humor.

Quick to poke fun at himself, he added, “I wasn’t good at Latin but I did learn ‘quid pro quo’ and ‘nolo contendere.'”

Russell studied piano in Buffalo with Ivan Shire for about 10 years. Shire’s son, David, has composed extensively for theater, television, and films, winning an academy award for the song “It Goes Like it Goes” from the movie “Norma Rae” as well as two Grammy awards. His songs have been recorded by such singers as Barbra Streisand and Maureen McGovern.

“He is younger than I am; I remember him as a little kid,” said Russell.

Russell knew that being a classical pianist was not in his future. The technique he employs when performing is “faking.” He assured me “faking” is a real term and involves using the music chords written above the melody line on specially written sheet music. In essence he plays the melody with the right hand and creates a left hand part.

As for writing lyrics for his parodies, his technique involves informally ‘scanning’ the lyrics in a known song. (For those who never scanned poetry in school, this means finding the rhythm in the work – stressed and unstressed syllables – as well as the pattern of the rhyme.) To be funny, a parody needs a good topic as well as a good fit to the original music.

Russell can spell Chautauqua as evidenced by what was his “final” performance at the amphitheater in the Chautauqua Institute in 2010. In yet another connection to Western New York, he spends the summer at his house there.

Russell’s retirement lasted about two years. The news of congressmen cavorting in the Sea of Galilee appealed to his sense of humor enough to draw him out of retirement.

“How can you make that up?” he asked.

He reflected that perhaps he retired many years ago when he began doing political satire. He simply enjoys what he does.

His sharp wit doesn’t mean he is entirely cynical. When he is asked when he has seen it so bad he replies, “From 1776 to 2014.”

Less flippantly, Russell said that he grew up during the Great Depression. He and his contemporaries survived and many even thrived. He mentioned Elizabeth Taylor and Mario Cuomo were born the same year he was.

He reads three to four newspapers daily. When asked which one, he replied “the Fredonia OBSERVER.” I am not sure if that was a joke or not.

About newspapers, he has been quoted as saying, “I thrive on newspapers – and it looks like I’ll be thriving longer than them.”

He believes newspapers are giving way to other technology.

Even though he said, “My knowledge of technology is limited to pushing down the toaster.” he does have a website www.markrussell.net. A visitor to the site can learn more about him, see his latest jokes, listen to a couple of his songs, check his performance schedule and even contact him.

I have one of the posters placed around the Fredonia area the last time Russell came to the Opera House. The year is not listed but it says Saturday Aug. 9. The year was probably 2008. My husband I attended that performance. I remember Russell joked about Frank Pagano, who was mayor of Fredonia at the time. Russell has promised not to make a joke about the present mayor, Stephen Keefe.

If possible, get to the performance. Don’t wait until the next one in 2020.